by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Clay Gilliland/WikiCommons/CC

IN AN UNEXPECTED move, the Taiwanese government announced last week that it would be exchanging representative offices with Somaliland, a move toward possible formal diplomatic relations in the future. Taiwan and Somaliland have signed an agreement for cooperation. Somaliland’s first representative to Taiwan will be academic Mohamed Omar Hagi Mohamoud.

Somaliland is, interestingly enough, an unrecognized territory with a population of 3.9 million, but with its own government, economy, and military. Somaliland is internationally recognized as an autonomous territory of Somalia, having declared independence in 1991. Other self-governed autonomous territories of Somalia include Galmudug, Jubaland, Puntland, and the South West State of Somalia. Somaliland does not have formal diplomatic ties with any countries, though some countries, such as neighboring Ethiopia, maintain trade offices in Somaliland.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. Photo credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

Taiwan currently only has fifteen remaining diplomatic allies, having lost seven diplomatic allies due to poaching from Beijing since Tsai Ing-wen took office for her first term in 2016. Taiwan has one remaining diplomatic ally in Africa, Eswatini, four allies which are small Pacific island countries, nine allies in Latin America and the Caribbean, and maintains ties with the Vatican. The Tsai administration has vowed that it will not lose any more diplomatic allies during its second term, but the Chinese government is expected to continue with efforts to poach Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, stating that it aims to reduce Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to zero.

Taiwan is larger than all of its remaining diplomatic allies, in terms of the size of its economy and population. Many of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, such as Eswatini, one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, and Honduras, which has been accused of having rigged elections, are countries with questionable human rights records. Somaliland is itself hardly as progressive as Taiwan, for example, with the death penalty remaining on the books for homosexuality.

To this extent, Taiwan has been accused of engaging in “dollar diplomacy” with its diplomatic allies, in providing aid and infrastructure development projects to smaller, less powerful countries in return for diplomatic support and for speaking up for Taiwan in international organizations that Taiwan is excluded from. But with China’s growing economic and political heft in the world, Taiwan has few ways of competing with or outspending China.

Some have viewed Somaliland establishing ties with Taiwan an unexpected reversal of the trend of Taiwan continuing to lose diplomatic allies under the Tsai administration, then. Firstly, it is important to note that Taiwan is only setting up a representative office in Somaliland, and has not established anything like formal diplomatic relations with Somaliland. Some reports from English-language domestic press, since deleted, have been so hasty as to claim that Taiwan could set up a military base in Somaliland with little evidence, despite the fact that irresponsible reporting escalates regional tensions in such a way that is dangerous for Taiwan.

Somaliland’s House of Representatives. Photo credit: Vincent van Zeijst/WikiCommons/CC

But it is probable that the Tsai administration is looking to tout the establishment of a trade office in Somaliland as a reversal of the trend of Taiwan losing diplomatic allies. Consequently, the Tsai administration is likely to frame the establishment of a representative office in Somaliland as breaking through a longstanding diplomatic deadlock.

Taiwan has been aided in efforts to shore up diplomatic relations by international recognition of Taiwan’s successes fighting COVID-19, as juxtaposed to China and the United States’ responses. The Tsai administration has sought to use this recognition as an opportunity to call attention to Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations, as well as a means to project diplomatic soft power by exporting medical supplies that Taiwan has a surplus of, such as medical masks.

Some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are, in fact, highly dependent on Taiwan for efforts to fight COVID-19, such as Palau. Somaliland may wish to build stronger ties with Taiwan for this reason. It is also probable that some countries may seek to improve ties with Taiwan to signal stronger interest in building ties with America, rather than China, in the course of the US-China trade war, seeing as America has historically been Taiwan’s security guarantor against the threat of Chinese invasion.

By contrast, the KMT has been critical of the opening of the representative office in Somaliland, suggesting that the move may be a waste of resources and citing Somaliland’s lack of official national recognition. Because Somaliland and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations, the trade office will have “Taiwan” in its name rather than refer to “Taipei”, as in the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Offices” that Taiwan operates worldwide in lieu of formal embassies. Yet the KMT has attempted to claim that the Tsai administration is covertly attempting to advance its ideological agenda of removing the symbols of ROC through this move, rather than take the view that this advances Taiwan’s sovereignty. 

English-language press release by the KMT on Taiwan opening up a diplomatic office in Somaliland

If Taiwan establishes formal diplomatic relations with Somaliland, this would be the first time that the Taiwanese government has established diplomatic relations with another state that, like itself, is unrecognized by the majority of the world’s nations. It is to be questioned whether this could be a new approach that the Taiwanese government would seek to continue. After all, with its population of 3.9 million, if formal diplomatic relations were to be established, this would immediately make Somaliland one of Taiwan’s largest diplomatic allies. Whether this could take place with other unrecognized states remains to be seen.

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